United States v. Vaello-Madero: Economic Justice, Political Equality, and Racial Equity for Puerto Rico
With the Supreme Court of the United States set for its hearing on the US v Vaello-Madero case, Laura Williamson at Demos writes on the background of the case, its context within the colonial relationship between the US and the territories, and how the current system makes it all but impossible for change to happen. Demos has included in their “Inclusive Democracy Agenda section Self-Determination of Political Status for Washington DC and the Territories” their support for the self-determination of the territories.
“Congress created the SSI program in 1972 to provide cash benefits to low-income people who are elderly and/or live with disabilities. SSI benefits are often a lifeline for people who have limited or no ability to work and no other means to generate income. While the residents of all 50 states, Washington D.C., and the Northern Mariana Islands enjoy SSI benefits, residents of the Puerto Rico and 3 other U.S. territories—the vast majority of whom are people of color—do not.
Demos has long challenged economic policies that flow from political disfranchisement and perpetuate racial discrimination. The exclusion of most residents of the territories from SSI benefits illustrates this intersection clearly. As such, we joined an amicus brief filed in support of Mr. Vaello-Madero, which calls for an end to the discriminatory exclusion of the people of Puerto Rico and other territories from SSI benefits.
While ostensibly a question of economic justice, this case also presents an important question for those of us who are fighting for an inclusive democracy. The most fundamental principle in a democracy is the people’s ability to self-govern. In the case of our representative democracy, that means we have the power to elect leaders who will govern in our interests and to vote out those who do not. Yet the Vaello-Madero case lays bare the severe limitations on that principle in practice for the people of the territories.
The people of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands could not vote for (or against) the members of Congress who passed a bill creating an SSI benefits program that excludes most of them, nor could they elect President Nixon, who signed it. To date, with no voting representation in Congress and no meaningful vote for president, they are subject to the edicts of a federal government in which they have no say.”
As of now, the Biden administration is pushing Congress to extend SSI to Puerto Rico beginning in 2024, but that is not guaranteed. A decision on this case could come anytime between now and summer of 2022.